Episode 60: The Power of E-Bikes with Congressman Earl Blumenauer
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Earl Blumenauer: You talk about a war on cars. I don’t necessarily feel like we have to declare war on cars. What I want to do is end socialism for cars.
Doug Gordon: This is The War on Cars. I’m Doug Gordon. Okay, so you’re thinking about getting an e-bike. You’ve seen them around, lots of people have them now and you’ve heard all the reasons why they’re great. They flatten hills, they make your commute a lot shorter, you don’t get sweaty, and they make cycling accessible to a wide range of people. Also, they’re just a ton of fun.
Doug: But there’s one problem. For a lot of people, e-bikes are still kind of expensive. Sure, there are deals out there, and prices are coming down all the time, but a decent model will still set you back over a thousand bucks. And prices in the $1,600 to $2,400 range are pretty common. Plus, if you want something with a lot of cargo and kid-carrying capacity, then you could be looking at something that will run you about three grand or higher. All right, but I can hear you saying, “Come on, Doug. E-bikes are expensive if you’re comparing them to traditional bikes, but aren’t they cheap compared to cars? And don’t we want to get people out of cars and onto bikes?” Because after all, if more people could make that switch, that would be pretty good.
Doug: For starters, nearly half of all car trips in our biggest, most congested cities are less than three miles, which is a distance that’s easy and fast on an e-bike. And on top of that, a recent study out of Portland State University found that if 15 percent of car trips were made by e-bike instead, carbon emissions would drop by 12 percent. Pretty good. But here’s the thing: yes, a $2,000 e-bike is definitely less expensive than a $20,000 car, especially in the long term. But buying an e-bike requires laying out a lot of cash all at once. Can that compete with a no-money-down, zero-percent-financing car loan? I’m not sure.
Doug: So what would it take to make it easier for folks to buy an e-bike? Well, there is a new bill in Congress that could help. It is called the Electric Bicycle Incentive Kickstart for the Environment Act, or E-Bike Act for short. See what they did there? And under this proposed legislation, anyone who buys an e-bike would receive a refundable tax credit of 30 percent of the purchase price. The tax credit is capped at $1,500, so that means any e-bike costing less than $8,000 would be eligible, and that covers just about every kind of e-bike you can imagine.
Doug: To learn more, I talked with one of the bill’s co-sponsors, and perhaps the biggest supporter of cycling and walking in the United States House of Representatives, Congressman Earl Blumenauer of Oregon’s 3rd District. Congressman Blumenauer was elected to the House in 1996, and represents most of Multnomah County, including most of Portland east of the Willamette River. Portland folks, I think I got that right. Right? Yeah, okay. He is a member of the House Ways and Means Committee. He chairs the Subcommittee on Trade. It’s not unusual to see him biking to work on Capitol Hill, or wearing a bicycle lapel pin on his suit jacket when he’s making a speech on the House floor. The congressman and I spoke about the E-Bike Act, but we also touched on the pandemic e-bike boom, the climate crisis, his hopes now that the White House, the Senate and the House are controlled by Democrats, and his thoughts on our new transportation secretary, Pete Buttigieg.
Doug: Congressman Blumenauer is a skilled and experienced legislator, but he’s also just a great guy. He is a philosopher supreme, he can extol the virtues of building better places for biking like no other elected official. It was my privilege to talk to Congressman Earl Blumenauer.
Doug: Congressman, welcome to The War on Cars.
Earl Blumenauer: My pleasure.
Doug: I wonder if you could just get started with the basics. If you can explain the E-Bike Act and what, if it passes, it would accomplish? And by the way, I love the acronym. It’s great.
Earl Blumenauer: Well, it’s part of a broad range of initiatives that we’re taking in this Congress, in concert with the new administration in a low-carbon future. The e-bike is an element of the bicycle renaissance that we’re seeing around the country. It has been embraced. We see on the bike-sharing programs that have an e-bike component that there’s tremendous interest, but it’s part of people wanting low-carbon mobility, greater convenience. E-bikes are—and I must confess that I still pedal the old fashioned way. It’s how I got to work today. But I have experimented with the e-bike, and I have found that it really adds an important component. That electric assist for people who are in areas that shall we just say, have challenging terrain makes a big difference, if you’re biking home uphill at the end of a long day, by moving along a little easier and a little faster, it’s easier for people to transition.
Earl Blumenauer: And we see a number of people who are using e-bikes are moving away from car commuting. It has the potential of a very dramatic reduction in carbon emissions. It’s also a way that will help reduce the impact of the car on communities. An e-bike doesn’t need the vast infrastructure for parking that automobiles capture. In a typical community, there are 6 to 10 times as many parking spaces as there are cars. That’s a huge waste of land. It produces heat islands with the vast expanses of blacktop. There are problems with water quality because they’re not absorbed into the land. There are problems with water pollution. It’s just a wide array of advantages to be able to civilize and soften the urban landscape, and be able to expand the cycling experience, to say the least. I mentioned challenging terrain, but there is a situation with some people for whom cycling gets to be a little bit of a challenge, particularly if they have health issues, or people who are a little older. The electric assist solves that problem as well. I think that it is a great part of the solution to urban mobility challenges, and the challenge of our time, which is reducing carbon emissions.
Doug: That’s great. And I wonder if you could walk us through the mechanics of the bill for our listeners. So it would be a 30 percent, up to $1,500 tax credit on an electric bicycle with a maximum price for that electric bicycle being $8,000. So that covers the vast majority of electric bicycles. In fact, most that I have looked at that I’ve seen are in the $1,200 to $2,000 range. And the idea with this bill is not for companies to go out and buy vast fleets of electric bikes—although that would be great—it’s for individuals to, like you said, hopefully replace a car trip or start commuting by bicycle.
Earl Blumenauer: For most people, it’s a relatively modest payment, but not insignificant, because an electric bike for typical bicycle purchases is two or three times more expensive, sometimes more. Now that we’ve got people in my community that are hand-making bicycles that cost more than my first house. But in this price point, it breaks down a little bit of that cost barrier. It is not something that is—because we’re capping it, it’s not going to be exotic proto-motorcycles. And it ought to be enough to get people over the edge. There are other significant savings for people who transition to an e-bike. I mentioned the cost of a—the typical costs of an automobile are pretty substantial. This is something that will enable people to reduce fuel and parking costs, convenience. They can use either existing bicycle infrastructure or be on the roadway safely. I am optimistic that this is going to be a boost to broaden the range of people who are involved with bike commuting, bike touring, bike tourism. And these are all areas that are going to benefit from greater application of the e-bike.
Doug: So, for example, under this credit, if I were to purchase a $2,000 e-bike, I’d wind up getting a $600 tax credit, which, like you said, is pretty significant for most folks. And that would cover anything else I might like to purchase. That would cover years of maintenance on an electric bicycle as opposed to perhaps two months of car payments. So that’s a significant savings. And as you mentioned, in reading up on the bill, it obviously is designed not so much for the quote unquote “cyclists,” but for hopefully car replacement. And there’s a study just out of your backyard from Portland State University that showed that nearly 50 percent of e-bike commute trips were replacing automobile commute trips. So that’s a significant climate advantage as well.
Earl Blumenauer: It’s huge. It really is huge. And we’re in a situation now where we have to make much more substantial progress. Those of us in the West have seen the horrific consequences of dramatic forest fires. It wasn’t just Australia halfway around the world, the West Coast was on fire this last year. For several days, Portland, Oregon, had the worst air quality in the world as a result of these forest fires. We need to change behaviors,and part of it,still transportation is a huge source of carbon pollution.
Earl Blumenauer: It also gives us an opportunity to reshape the landscape. As we move into transportation for the future with an e-bike, it is less of a challenge for using right of way. We’re going to be looking—particularly with electric vehicles—applications of things like Lyft and Uber that have the potential of reducing the requirement of individual automobiles. But the e-bike is in that sweet spot where virtually anybody can use it. It is actually as efficient, much more efficient, obviously, in terms of carbon pollution and energy, but in terms of time, the e-bike is very close to the performance of an automobile in a congested urban setting. And at the beginning and the end of that trip, there’s less time consumed in terms of parking and moving around. So I think it is a dramatic opportunity to change the urban landscape and carbon pollution.
Doug: I think you hit on something that I always think is the most unsung virtue of bicycling, whether on a traditional bike or an electric bike, and that is, as you said, the time savings. Whenever I commute by bicycle, it is 35 minutes door to door every day, no matter the weather, no matter the traffic. I am at my desk—in a time when we would sit at desks in offices—at the same time every day. And that is just something you can’t—you know, driving is unpredictable, traffic is unpredictable and the search for parking can be five minutes, it can be 50 minutes. So I think that is a life-changing element for people that, if they aren’t already cycling, they will soon find out, and they’ll wonder how they ever did it any differently.
Earl Blumenauer: That is a profound observation. It is so much easier on a bike to go around minor traffic disturbances, if there’s an accident or there’s a jam up trying to negotiate turning, it’s relatively easy for the cyclist to go around. It’s relatively easy when the cyclist gets to his or her destination to just lock up the bike and walk in. And at the same time, you get a little bit of your early morning exercise in, your attitude is better. You know, you see very few examples of road rage from bike commuters, other than they can be a little cranky with rude drivers. Their spirits are lifted. And you see it when two cyclists are stopped side by side waiting for the traffic light to change. They tend to greet each other. It’s much more positive. You don’t have that in terms of people who are trapped in a ton or two of metal and plastic.
Doug: It’s only funny that you’re saying that right now because, I’m not sure if you can hear, but outside of my window—I’m in my bedroom recording this—someone must be double-parked, and there’s just tons of honking. And I just heard someone screaming at another driver. So not sure if the microphone picked that up, but it couldn’t have been better timed for what you were just saying.
Earl Blumenauer: Well, you could elaborate on this. I mean, we’ve had murders take place this year during snow season. It happens all the time, fighting over parking spaces that they shovel out. It is really remarkable in terms of the areas of friction and contention that dissipates when you are on a bicycle. It connects people. And we find a whole host of other things. I don’t want to go off on a tangent here, you talk about a war on cars. For years I’ve indicated I don’t necessarily feel like we have to declare war on cars. What I want to do is end socialism for cars.
Earl Blumenauer: I want to stop the extraordinary subsidization of the automobile, in terms of what happens in taking up roadway, in terms of parking subsidies, in terms of the challenges of the care and feeding of automobiles, high cost of housing. Well, people don’t factor in the high cost of housing your car. If you don’t have to have a double garage for two cars, that’s less housing. And I see the e-bike as expanding this playing field and these opportunities.
Doug: I want to get back to the bill for a second and talk about the equity component of this. So part of what is proposed here is that, after two years, the IRS would report back to basically let you know what income brackets are taking most advantage of the tax rebate. Why did you think that was an important thing to include?
Earl Blumenauer: Well, we want to make sure that we understand the dynamic. We want to see if there’s an adjustment that we need to make. We’re not going to be able to have—this is not the only thing we’re doing to make cycling more affordable. I have legislation that would reinstitute the commuter bike benefit, which would put money in the pocket of people who commute by bikes. This tax credit is fully refundable. So low-income people who do not itemize their deductions can take full advantage of the credit. So it was designed to make it easier for all users, not just high-income people.
Earl Blumenauer: And if it were some sort of tax deduction, it would flow towards the wealthy. Or if it was not a refundable tax credit. But we want to be able to monitor it, to look at the effects, be able to make additions, if necessary. I think once we are able to boost the participation of the e-bike, get more people involved, I think we’re going to see broader acceptance. But we want more information, and I want to be able to answer that question that some people have.
Doug: So this bill, and a lot of the work that you have done over your career in Congress, has been focused on progressive transportation. How has the pandemic and the bicycle boom that has been associated with it, how has it changed your thinking at all? Or, you know, in some ways, if you’re anything like how I think about it, I sometimes just think it’s sort of exposed a latent desire that people have for cycling. Did the pandemic change how you think about this bill, or how you think about your many decades now of work promoting cycling?
Earl Blumenauer: I think that is a very profound observation. The COVID crisis has exposed inequities and weaknesses in our healthcare system, in our food supply system. It has really shone a light on things that we need to change. What I felt very strongly in terms of all of the energy that is being extended to try and get people to return to normal, to have life as they know it, also intersects with the climate crisis. I mean, this is getting to the point where even people in Texas have to acknowledge it. I mean, look at the horrific experience people had with lives being lost, millions of people’s lives disrupted. We can’t afford to sit back and be blasé about the urgency of the climate crisis.
Earl Blumenauer: Cycling is the intersection of solutions to the climate crisis and COVID. It is an opportunity for people to behave more normally. It’s an opportunity for people to promote health, and strengthen community, and get more resources available to deal with urgent transportation needs. This is the time to deal with climate, to deal with health, to deal with strains in our community. And the behavioral changes that we’ve seen makes me think that this is the time to expand it.
Earl Blumenauer: We have other things that we’re doing. I mentioned the bicycle commuter tax credit. We have legislation that would define a bike share as part of the transit system. You know, we have millions of people who are taking advantage of bike share at this point. It was 50 million trips. It’s already part of mass transit. And a lot of people are a little leery about hopping on that subway car or that bus. Earlier this last year, the CDC told people not to take transit. Well, bike share is transit that’s out in the open air, it’s fresh, you’re not dealing with other people. And so it’s a safer, quicker, more convenient alternative that people, I think, will be much—we’re seeing people are much more readily embracing. So these are all part of a whole.
Doug: So given those circumstances that have all come together: the climate crisis, the COVID crisis, you also have the advantage now of having a Democrat in the White House. The House is controlled by the Democrats, and the Senate is in the hands of the Democrats. So do you think it’s an easier sell all around now to push cycling, to push the commuter tax credit for bike share and things like that? What do you see? Do you see this as a real opportunity?
Earl Blumenauer: I certainly do. First of all, you mentioned that Democrats are in control of the executive and the legislative branch. Our legislation will not be buried by Mitch McConnell in sort of his legislative hospice in the Senate. With Leader Schumer, these items are not going to be buried. They’re actually going to be debated and voted on. And of course, Chuck Schumer has experience on this in New York, as you know. We have key people in leadership positions who are sensitive to cycling. But part of the problem was that we couldn’t get it out to the public because it was buried in the Senate. It’s not going to be buried this time.
Earl Blumenauer: And last but not least, we have an administration that is committed to a low-carbon future, a green economic recovery. And they just appointed a secretary of transportation who is one of the most creative and articulated spokespeople. I mean, Ray LaHood was amazing. I dearly loved Ray, and he did a fabulous job. Pete Buttigieg is a little—is every bit as progressive, and I think is one of the most gifted communicators. And as you know, he had direct experience as mayor of South Bend dealing with some of these initiatives. So the leadership in the Department of Transportation, in a Biden administration, an opportunity for both the House and the Senate to engage, I think it’s an opportunity of a lifetime.
Doug: And I also think, to Secretary Buttigieg’s credit, and I was just observing recently that he was on, I think, The Late Show with Seth Meyers. He’s been on The Tonight Show. He is on all the morning programs. And I can’t remember, and perhaps I don’t know if you can remember, a secretary of transportation who got booked on a late night comedy show to talk about cycling and trains and safer streets for pedestrians.
Earl Blumenauer: We’ve had some gifted people who’ve had that position. I mentioned my friend Ray LaHood.
Doug: Who was fantastic, yeah.
Earl Blumenauer: Who just was transformational. But we’ve never had anybody as gifted as Pete Buttigieg as secretary in terms of the communication. I mean, he really is unique in my experience. And I’ve been doing this for a long time with some terrific people around the country. But he’s a singular quality that I think is going to make a big difference, providing not just the leadership, but in terms of articulating what we’re trying to do. And I think it’s a remarkable appointment that’s going to bear fruit for the entire four years.
Doug: I want to just ask your opinion also on your colleagues’ support. When you arrived in Congress in 1996, you founded the Congressional Bike Caucus, and today it has 108 members. I checked. My congressperson, Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez, she’s a member. So very thankful for that. Did you ever imagine you’d have so much support behind—if you look back or could talk to the 1996 version of you, did you ever think you’d have this much support?
Earl Blumenauer: Actually, I did. Because I came to Congress working on a livability agenda, and working with mass transit and housing initiatives, land use. Some of them are expensive, and some of them are controversial. Cycling always seemed to me to be an opportunity to bring people together. It is bike-partisanship. And we have over 100 members already. This is two months into this Congress. We will have far more before we’re done. At various times we’ve had half the Congress who’ve been members of the Bike Caucus, because this is something that speaks to people. My co-chair, Vern Buchanan from Sarasota, Florida, is a strong Republican advocate for cycling, and it just underscores the fact that there’s something here for everyone. So I was optimistic when I came in. I’d never been disappointed. Sometimes there have been challenges when we’ve had an administration that was not cooperative. The last administration was zero help on this. But in the main, we’ve had pretty good luck. And cyclists have been very significant politically. In the 2004 presidential election, Senator Kerry and President George Bush were both cyclists. We had support from Barack Obama. You’ve seen Joe Biden on a bike. When did you see Donald Trump on a bike?
Doug: [laughs] So for the people listening to this at home, it seems like many of the pieces are in place for the E-Bike Act to pass both houses of Congress and get signed into law. What can people, regular citizens, do to offer their support and help guarantee its success?
Earl Blumenauer: Well, I think there’s a role for everybody to play for being an advocate for safe cycling and pedestrian activity, for alternative transportation. Make it an issue. In virtually every community, there are advocacy groups. And I hope people will connect with their local advocacy group. If they are part of a larger metropolitan area, to be able to reach out to every member of that delegation, or frankly, make it a statewide initiative.
Earl Blumenauer: Bike tourism is a big deal in rural and small town America. Being able to be an advocate with local bike shops and activist groups, to be able to add to the momentum. We’ve got a long way to go. Cycling and pedestrian activity still is way too dangerous, way too dangerous. And we don’t invest enough in safety. So I think there’s a role for people to deal with the advocacy group, reach out to elected officials at all levels. Make it a cause. Make it a cause in your community, in your state, and with your federal congressional delegation. We can make more progress with cycling and pedestrian activity for less money and do it quicker than any other area dealing with transportation in a low-carbon future.
Doug: Congressman, I think that’s a perfect note to end on. I must admit, not too many elected officials are willing to come on a podcast called The War on Cars, given our great cultural wars that we see playing out on cable news. So first of all, thank you for being on the program. And more importantly, thank you for your many decades of public service. and for your support for these issues that are so important to me, to my family, to my friends, to my community. I have been observing and listening to your career for a long time, and I really appreciate everything you’re doing. And best of luck with this new bill. Thank you so much.
Earl Blumenauer: Thanks for your time. Thanks for the information you provide to the public. It’s an important part of how we’re going to be successful.
Doug: That’s it for my conversation with Congressman Earl Blumenauer. If you’d like to see the E-Bike Act become a reality, the best thing you can do is to call your representative in Congress and ask them to co-sponsor the bill. You can either do that directly, or use a handy tool put together by the national advocacy organization People for Bikes. We’ll put a link to it in the show notes.
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Doug: And speaking of e-bikes, you know what looks good when you’re riding one? Cleverhood. You can receive a 30 percent discount on Cleverhood’s new anorak, and 20 percent off almost everything else in the Cleverhood store. Enter code “waroncars” at checkout. All you have to do is go to cleverhood.com/waroncars to learn more. You can also get an official War on Cars coffee mug and other great gear in the War on Cars store, located at thewaroncars.org/store. This episode was produced and edited by me. Our theme music is by Nathaniel Goodyear. Our logo is by Dani Finkel of Crucial D. Design. I’m Doug Gordon, and on behalf of my co-hosts Aaron Naparstek and Sarah Goodyear, this is The War on Cars.